Wisconsin Cheese Tour: 2014
I moved to Wisconsin kicking and screaming. More accurately, I moved to Wisconsin tearing up outside of every apartment complex we viewed before signing our lease. Three years later, I’m sipping Wisconsin signature brandy old fashioneds, buying every plaid shirt I can find, and nearly calling a “water fountain” the “bubbler”. What changed my mind? Wisconsin Cheese.
If it sounds outrageous to have one’s perspective on a geographic area radically altered by a dairy product, I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’ve never eaten an ultra fresh, squeaky cheddar cheese curd. In all seriousness, while it wasn’t the cheese alone that slowly transformed me into a (this is the real term) “cheesehead,” the high quality and abundance of artisan cheeses available in Wisconsin is one of the many qualities I’ve come to love about the state.
Given my cheesy ardor, I was beyond ecstatic when the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board invited me along for its fall Wisconsin Cheese Tour. I joined members of the food media community to learn about the cheese-making process, visited creameries both rural and urban, and even made cheese at one of my favorite manufacturers. We also tasted enough cheese to stock a small grocery store. Basically, I was in heaven.
The tour began here in Milwaukee. As a new resident of the city, I was excited to discover new places through the tour, starting with Clock Shadow Creamery, located in the heart of the city. It’s the only urban creamery in the state of Wisconsin and one of the few in the country. Clock Shadow also produces what are officially the best fresh cheese curds I’ve ever tried.
For the non-curd acquainted (or for those who’ve eaten curds but never stopped shoveling them into their mouths long enough to figure out what they are), a quick definition. Cheese curds are essentially the same cheese that you slice from the block, just earlier in the process. I like to think of them as little cheese “nuggets,” and cheddar curds are the most commonly-sold type. The curds that are not sold as-is are placed into molds and pressed. The pressure causes the curds to fuse, resulting in a solid wheel of cheddar cheese.
Speaking of wheels of cheese, the second creamery we visited, Hennings Cheese in Kiel, WI, is the only creamery in the country making wheels of cheddar larger than 75 pounds. The beauty in the photo above clocks in at 4,000 pounds and sparks a high demand around the country. This particular wheel will be headed to Michigan, and Hennings will graciously be sending an appropriately sized cheese slicer along with it.
Our tour of Hennings was particularly special because it was giving by Kert Hennings, one of the four generations of the Hennings family that has owned and operated the creamery since 1914. Hennings sources its milk from more than 30 Wisconsin family farms, still makes its cheese by hand, and also offers a stellar 9-year cheddar. I never wanted my piece to end.
Saxon Creamery was our next stop. Like the Hennings family, the operators of the Saxon Creamery are fiercely dedicated to and passionate about their cheese. As at Hennings, I was surprised by how much of the process is still done by hand. Here you can see one of Saxon’s employees hand painting the cheese, which helps to seal it and form the rind.
Below is the Saxon aging room. Don’t you kind of want to live here (with a cheese knife, of course).
Throughout the tour, we learned about an important distinction within Wisconsin cheesemaking, the title of Master Cheesemaker. Becoming a Master Cheesemaker in Wisconsin is a 13-year process that involves 10+ of experience, a vigorous 3-year academic program, and oral and written examinations. At the moment, Wisconsin has 60 master cheesemakers, the majority of whom are male.
I’m hoping that will change in the future, and I won’t be at all surprised when Katie Fuhrmann, the cheesemaker at LaClare Farm, earns the distinction. Katie—who looked to be about my age—started cheesemaking at her family’s dairy and has already earned a variety of awards for her products. We had a lovely tour and lunch at LaClare, and I loved hearing Katie speak about the family’s history and legacy at the farm.
Not only did we tour Sartori’s plant, we actually made cheese. Yes, that’s right. I donned sexy rubber boots, a hair net, and gloves and hopped on the line. It was eye-opening to see how much of the process at Sartori—the largest creamery we visited—is still done by hand. PS. Wheels of Parmesan are heavy.
Besides hanging out in one of the aging rooms (the first image in this post), my favorite part was applying the espresso to the wheels of BellaVitano. Every single wheel is rubbed by hand, and one of those wheels has my glove print. #famous.
Though the creameries we visited varied in size, product type, and technique, every single person we met spoke with pride for and dedication to their craft. The emphasis on food safety and consistency was foremost, and it was clear that cheesemaking requires an in-depth understanding of art and science alike.
I’d like to thank Wisconsin Cheese for this incredible experience. I’ll never view a wheel of cheddar or wedge of Parmesan the same way again.
My trip was hosted by Wisconsin Cheese, but no other compensation was received. As always, all opinions are my own.